WILLIMANTIC, Maine — Selectman Rene Gorey was seated Thursday at the table prepared for the monthly board meeting when Selectmen Thomas Capraro and John Tatko immediately resigned, handed him a folder, advised him to call the Maine Municipal Association if he had any questions, and then left.
“My first thought was, ‘what am I going to do?’” Gorey, who has been on the board for about two months, recalled Monday. He then did as he was advised. He said he called the municipal association and scheduled a special town meeting for 7 p.m. Friday, Sept. 2, at the Monson Community Center to elect two new selectmen.
The turmoil is nothing new to this small Piscataquis County community, which has been embroiled in controversy since 2007 when the former treasurer and tax collector admitted to embezzling more than $46,000 from the town over a 10-year period. Jacqueline Gorey was sentenced to 10 years in prison with 8¾ years suspended, ordered to pay restitution of $10,000 and placed on probation for three years.
Tatko and Capraro, who were among the residents who discovered the embezzlement, have been in the spotlight in recent months after they invested about $93,500 of town funds in renovations to the Town Hall without an engineering plan or the necessary permits. Both men claim they were told no permit was necessary for the renovations, many of which do not meet state code. Both men also said they did not retain an engineering firm in order to save the town money.
Residents had approved funds for renovations to the Town Hall to enlarge the kitchen so expanded functions could be held in the building and to install a vault to keep the town’s documents secure.
Capraro, who submitted his resignation as selectman, health officer, recording secretary and the town’s public information officer, said he was grateful for having the opportunity to serve the town for the past four years.
“I have always given the people of Willimantic first priority as I carried out my duties,” he wrote in his resignation.
Tatko noted the many accomplishments during his and Capraro’s terms on the board, including the construction of a new bridge on Elliotsville Road, improvements to the transfer station, the low tax rate and improved town services. He said personal attacks and threats to him at his business and home and letters to his family have been increasingly difficult to bear.
“It is sad to think that such a small handful of people, so vindictive for no apparent reason other than personal dislike, can wedge a town apart,” he said Thursday. He too said he enjoyed the opportunity to serve. “I can say that I left the town in much better shape than when I started.”
Not so, say some residents, including Julius Erdo, who has besieged the board with letters alleging its malfeasance regarding the use of the Town Hall funds. Erdo repeatedly has called on the two selectmen to resign and to pay back the town funds spent on the Town Hall renovation.
Erdo said the renovations have reduced the capacity of the first floor to no more than 30 people, therefore making it necessary for any large gatherings and meetings to be held in Monson. In addition, the new basement and the new vault are off limits to the public because the basement is not properly supported and has moisture damage, he said.
At the request of residents, an engineer hired after the renovations were completed estimated it will cost about $63,000 to correct the structural problems created by the alterations. Even with the corrections, the state has said no more than 30 people are allowed on the first floor at a time until even more structural improvements have been made.
Residents are expected to address funding for the needed corrections at the annual town meeting. The town meeting typically is held in August, but the budget has not yet been completed so no date has been set.
“I really think the town of Willimantic will have a future, but we’re going to have to work together to achieve it,” resident David Thayer said Monday.